Ms Stephanie Bunker, a very energetic and passionate woman, is spokesperson of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in New York. Briefing us on humanitarian assistance, she started with an introductory overview summarising mainly when and where aid is provided as well as how it is funded and which basic principles humanitarian aid should ideally follow.
Humanitarian assistance is provided in complex emergencies or natural disasters. A complex emergency is for example a situation in which the situation cannot be dealt with by any one responder, including the state. This happens mostly in cases of conflict, often marked by human rights violations, sometimes accompanied by the absence of a recognised government in charge and/or functioning banks or infrastructure. Natural disasters include floods, earthquakes, windstorms (hurricanes, cyclones, etc.), volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, as well as droughts or even (potentially) epidemics. These may also occur within complex emergencies. Countries that require humanitarian assistance are, for example, Sudan, Afghanistan and Somalia, while Asia is the continent most frequently hit by natural disasters. Africa experiences both natural disasters and conflicts. An country affected by a complex emergency or a disaster needs to agree to accept humanitarian assistance before UN staff is allowed to provide it.
Humanitarian assistance operates according to three main principles. It should be impartial, independent and neutral. Impartiality means that provision of humanitarian assistance must not be based on nationality, race, religion, or political point of view. It must be based on need alone. Independence means that humanitarian agencies must formulate and implement their own policies independently of government policies or actions. Neutrality usually refers to the provision of humanitarian aid in an impartial and independent manner, based on need alone, avoidance of taking sides and providing aid without strings or conditions attached to it. But Ms Bunker admitted that this is a sensitive subject since most of the aid is provided by donor countries, which can of course choose freely which countries they want to support. This decision cannot be guaranteed to be free from any political interests or the intention to exert some kind of influence. But there are also cases where countries give unearmarked money to the UN, thereby assigning the power about the distribution on projects or countries to the UN.
This brings us to the next topic: money. There is a Central Emergency Response Fund, which is rather small, with a maximum total of US$ 500 million per year. This money is completely ‘unearmarked’. About two thirds of the money is reserved for sudden onset emergencies and one third is given to support underfunded emergency situations. An obvious advantage of this money is that it can be provided really fast and that it is unconditional (however about US$ 50 million are provided in loans). Generally, apart from the Central Emergency Response Fund, the UN estimates an amount they expect to be necessary for the upcoming year. At the end of 2008 they determined that US$ 7.7 billion for known extant humanitarian aid purposes, which was the biggest amount ever requested. But meanwhile due to unexpected events the appeal grew to US$ 8.5 billion. By the time of our briefing less than one-third of the money had been given to the UN and on average only about two thirds of the money appealed will get in by the end of the year.
Preceding with the question how to deal with governments misusing money from humanitarian aid, Ms Bunker explained that the aid does normally not go to governments but to the UN and to NGOs, who are very important and irreplaceable in humanitarian work. But still sometimes money or aid can get stolen or misused. In some cases, aid agencies may decide not to send aid to areas where it has been misappropriated to exert some pressure on those groups. Another question was what kind of aid is provided. As already mentioned, part of the aid to people in need may be in the form of money, but often it is services or commodities that are provided. Especially in cases where domestic markets do not function or lack materials, real assets like food, water, clothes and blankets are very important. Additionally the humanitarian assistance can include medical care or vehicles (like ambulances). But the big advantage of cash compared to real assets is that it does not need so much space, which keeps transportation and logistic costs low. Additionally the domestic economies are strengthened if products are bought within the country.
Another problematic situation sometimes arises if the countries in emergency do not want to permit humanitarian aid to enter their territory. Since, as already mentioned, the country has to allow the UN to get in and help, humanitarian assistance actually depending on this admission. Then, sometimes closed-door negotiations need to take place. Some countries are concerned about their national image when asking for aid, yet sometimes they are willing to accept aid – without asking for it.
Getting out of involvement in a country is also an interesting topic. In case of disasters the government and the UN discuss phasing out humanitarian aid and moving toward aid directed at rehabilitation, recovery and development. Normally there is a process of transition in which humanitarian aid vanishes step by step and UN programmes dealing with building up the country like development aid advance over time.
Ms Bunker’s presentation was very informative and exciting, granting a very good look behind the scenes.